Seoul (UCAN), August 15 — Culture and Tourism Minister Lee Chang-dong announced on August 6 in Seoul that his ministry’s Religious Affairs Office would be integrated into a new Cultural Policies Office under a plan to reorganize his ministry. The Cultural Policies Office would be expanded from the current Cultural Policies Bureau.
Lee explained that “the integration is to effectively coordinate cultural and religious policies, since religion is linked with every section of culture.” The reorganization is to be confirmed in October.
However, the Korean Council of Religious Leaders (KCRL), an association of eight religions, as well as the Christian Council of Korea (CCK), have issued statements opposing the move. The National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) did more, calling for the Religious Affairs Office to be closed altogether.
In a statement issued on August 8, the KCRL asserted, “The government should stop discussion of the integration of the religious office.” The council explained that the proposed integration results from the lack of awareness of the importance of religion in Korea, where more than 60 percent of the people practice different religions.
The statement was signed by KCRL representatives, including Venerable Bubjang, chief executive of the Chogye Order, South Korea’s largest Buddhist denomination, and Bishop Boniface Choi Ki-san of Inchon, head of the Korean bishops’ Committee for Promoting Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue.
Father John Bosco Hong Chang-jin, secretary of the committee headed by Bishop Choi, told UCA News on August 12 that the Catholic Church signed the KCRL statement “in the spirit of solidarity with other member religions.”
He said that, unlike other religions, the Catholic Church has very little to do with the Religious Affairs Office and that the office has given out funds without discretion. Because “the fund has been exclusively allocated to some religions,” he contended, the office “surely” needs to be revised.
Father Hong disagrees that the office “should be closed” because it has been involved in social causes proposed by various religions, such as the issues of peace, life and reconciliation between North Korea and South Korea.
The KCRL was set up in 1997 by representatives of Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, the indigenous Chondo-gyo, or road to heaven religion, the local Won Buddhism, Protestantism and Korea’s native Shamanism religion. It aims to promote harmony and assist joint projects among religions.
An official of the culture and tourism ministry explained to UCA News on Aug. 11 that the Religious Affairs Office plans and enforces religious policies in Korea, and works on mitigating conflicts among religious groups.
He also said that it conducts studies on religious activities, handles affairs related to Buddhism, Confucianism and Korea’s indigenous religions, supports Protestant and Catholic Churches, gives aid to religious-related affairs, and supports religious exchanges and services in North Korea and other countries. The new office, he added, will set up policies to promote Korean culture and formulate policies concerning culture and religion.
The CCK, an umbrella group of conservative Protestant denominations and a KCRL member, said in a statement issued on July 29 that it regrets the ministry is exploring the possibility of integration. Reverend Park Chun-yill, executive secretary of the CCK, told UCA News on August 12 that the ministry’s Religious Affairs Office has played a role to “sort out cults among many new religions and legally control the number of new seminaries.” If the office were to close, he said, it would be difficult to “comprehend the religion situation and prevent conflicts among religions.”
Venerable Hyongo, spokesperson of the Chogye Order, told UCA News on August 13 that a flood of religious denominations has created confusion in society. Pointing out that Protestant denominations now total “almost 300,” he said such a phenomenon provides the potential for religious conflicts.
Reverend Lim Heung-ki, the NCCK associate general secretary, told UCA News that the office was set up during the military regime “definitely to control religion.” He maintains that “the office should be closed,” arguing that the less religion has relations with the government, the better.
He noted that his council is not a member of the KCRL, which he says was “also set up under the government’s initiative.” He added that his national council has never been involved in “any project led by the government.”
According to the local news agency Yonhap News, the Religious Affairs Office was set up in 1982 during the military dictatorship of former president Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988), to “maintain amicable relations between the military government and religions.”
UCAN (Union of Catholic Asian News) is linked to UCIP (International Catholic Union of the Press). With several offices around Asia, UCA News, the largest Asian Church news agency.
Posted on Religioscope with permission.
© UCAN 2003.